At the helm: Don Taylor, Graincorp chairman

At the helm: Don Taylor, Graincorp chairman
By Charisse Gray on 17 March 2017 Don Taylor, chairman of Graincorp, shares his insights on what it takes to be a strong leader.

A little background

Don has contributed to the global success of Australian business, Graincorp, an international leader in food ingredients and agribusiness. With more than a decade at the helm of the grains handler and 14 years on the board, Don is recognised as an astute and visionary businessman, a strong tactician and strategist, a change agent and an authentic leader.

He has presided over the simplification of GrainCorp's capital structure, and signed off on the $757 million purchase of the world's fourth-largest maltster, United Malt Holdings. During this time the business has faced changing global conditions, export competitiveness, financial challenges and defending GrainCorp from a hostile $3 billion takeover from US giant Archer Daniels Midland in 2013.

Let’s look at leadership and start with the age old nature and nurture question.

Q Do you believe leaders are born with an aptitude for leadership and that these characteristics are innate or intuitive, part of their DNA? Or are great leadership traits nurtured and developed throughout a leader’s career?

A Many personal attributes aid in becoming a leader, for example being a good public speaker or having ‘presence’, and these traits could be considered as given gifts. However, while having some natural advantage is helpful, it is not sufficient on its own. One essential part of leadership is a desire to lead – and some individuals have no desire to be leaders. However, there is a big gap from the desire to lead and becoming a great leader.

My view is that great leaders work on developing and improving their leadership throughout their career. Every individual has the ability to improve their performance, and leadership is no different from any other trait. Whether one achieves greatness has more to do with effort than innate ability.

Q Has leadership come naturally to you or have you worked at being the best leader you can be and, if so, what has this journey involved?  

A I continually work at improving my own performance. I read widely and take bits and pieces of experience to improve my performance. While I don’t particularly like criticism, I am responsive to changing my behaviour after feedback. I actively seek the opinion of others about how something could have been done better, even when it may have gone well.

Q What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of leading people and an organisation?

A I get great pleasure from seeing others improve their skills – being part of a team that is successful is a great experience. I really enjoy seeing improvement in people and seeing them become more successful. Sometimes this is to my detriment, as they leave and take a better role at another organisation.
From an organisational point of view, working with a team to chart a new course and then delivering against the new direction. And course-correcting on the way, to ensure you make it to your goal.

Q How do you go about choosing people to become leaders? What are the core attributes you are looking for?

A Energetic, self-starters who have a desire to be better. People who will do what they say they will and always own their decisions, even when they don’t work out. People who make good decisions under pressure. Sometimes that is not making a decision, but taking time to get it right. People who are interested in personal development and work hard at it.

Q How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

A Never stop learning and seeking to be better. Change as circumstances change. Stay current. Respect everyone.

Leadership traits

Q What types of leadership characteristics typically yield better business results?

A Most businesses go through phases, so different leadership styles will be required for changed circumstances. A building or growth stage requires different skills from a defensive or declining phase. Many of the skills are transferable, but relative strengths can become relative weaknesses, just because of changed business conditions. Good leaders adapt to changed circumstances and operate according to need.

Q What is the one trait that you believe every leader must possess?

A Consistency.

Q What behaviours or traits have you seen derail a leader’s career?

A  Inconsistent and indecisive leaders make it very difficult for teams to understand where they are heading, and usually lead to failure to follow through on projects. No-one is sure that what was important yesterday will be important tomorrow.

Failure to manage performance regularly. This works both ways: failure to give praise where praise is due and failure to correct where correction is needed are equally important and should be regular occurrences, not just at yearly performance reviews. By the time you get to a review, everything discussed should be well known and in the action phase.

Hubris is also a leadership killer.

'Be yourself and don't try to be someone you're not'

Q What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

A Be yourself and don’t try to be someone you are not. Remember that your every action will be watched and interpreted. Never forget that your job is to lead; always behave like a leader. Have confidence in your abilities; it can be lonely at the top.

Q How do you stay motivated and inspired, especially over the long haul?

A I love work and have long-term goals for the circumstances I am managing. These goals keep changing as they are achieved. If I feel I cannot add to the organisation or my efforts are not effective, I will resign and move on.

Motivation comes from my desire to understand the real crux of the problem, free from unnecessary detail. Every circumstance is different and consequently requires critical analysis—and usually input from others—to get to the best solution.

Q How important is self-awareness to an exceptional leader, and why?

A Absolutely vital. Being able to adjust to differing circumstances is essential for effective leadership. There are so many circumstances that require subtle changes in the way you present yourself to gain the respect and authority that is required. Everyone watches all the time, so you must never drop your guard.

Q Is there anything in your life, past or present, that you would change if you could?

A Hindsight is a perfect science. There are many things that I would do differently, knowing that a better result could be obtained. But my philosophy is to live each day as best I can and learn from mistakes. You can’t go back and it is pointless to think you can. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Q Is an ego necessary to be an exceptional leader? If so, why?

A If the definition of ‘ego’ is a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance, then ‘yes.’ However, a good leader needs a lot of self-esteem but only a little self-importance.

Criticism and failure

Q How have you handled times of criticism, opposition or failure?

A Listen, think and then react. Never show emotion; do that privately and think of the learnings and what could have been done differently. After significant failure, I usually like to take a step away and spend some time thinking and reflecting. It is important to avoid a knee jerk reaction which may feel good at the time, but which you’ll later regret.

An external board review once raised a number of areas where I could do better. I took that on board, making sure that I changed my behaviour to take account of the criticism.

Q Do you periodically take stock of your personal strengths and shortcomings, your successes and failures?

A Yes. I am very self-critical and try to learn from my mistakes. When things don’t go well, I take it very personally and examine what would have been a better approach. What should I have done differently?

I’m a huge fan of Einstein’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.

I have a number of bad habits which I have to be conscious of and try to mitigate.

Q How do you personally face problems?

A Carefully and thoughtfully. But I am a decision-maker, not someone who puts off dealing with a problem.

Q What final message do you have for ‘would be’ influential leaders?

A Watch and observe leaders you admire and learn from their example. Understand what good leadership looks like and work hard at being better.

Taylor's pearls of wisdom

  • I always stand up for what I believe is right—but I do my homework first, so I’m prepared.
  • I take things in and process them before I speak or make decisions. I’m a firm believer in the Greek proverb God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak.
  • When I attend a conference, I choose to attend a strand of information that I know little or nothing about—on the grounds that there’s little point in attending a presentation on a subject with which I’m familiar.
  • The best information comes from genuine dialogue with staff at all levels of the organisation. I aim to be as visible as possible and walk around the organisation when I can.
  • Success is feeling good within yourself that you have given your best and been successful.
  • You should take every opportunity that presents itself. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and be prepared to learn about new things, particularly in this fast-paced, changing world. Keep up with the times; stay current.
  • The more you share with staff, the more you get back from them.
  • It’s much easier to negotiate from a position of strength.
  • You have to have a modern view of the world where change is necessary—unless you change with it, you become a dinosaur.
  • Anticipating what’s going to happen in the future is a critical aspect of astute leadership.
  • You can feel positive vibes and momentum when you go into a business or unit where everybody is powered by strong leadership.
  • You have to achieve or do things for the better to be successful and to be an outstanding leader. It’s not all about money and profitability, though obviously you aren’t a successful leader if the company goes broke. However, people who are only driven by money don’t make exceptional leaders.
  • Poor leaders make the mistake of doing too much talking to their staff about where they want to get, but not how they’re going to get there. They leave them to their own devices without strong leadership advice, guidance or resources.
  • Leaders need to develop their knowledge, skills and experience—and this process should be ongoing.
  • Change may mean moving settled people out of their roles, because they no longer fit the role’s new direction. This can be very hard. People issues are very hard. I admit I really dislike this responsibility and have had to make decisions in this area far too many times for comfort.
The full interview will appear in the upcoming book Born to Lead? Empowering insights and personal journeys of outstanding business leaders by Charisse Gray and Tony Dormer.


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